History of the Emirates | United Arab Emirates (UAE)

For many outsiders, the United Arab Emirates is seen as a land of deserts and camels – and the dramatic modernity that has followed on from the discovery of oil and gas. In his talk "Not Just Desert, but 9,000 Years of Trade" Peter Hellyer explains that UAE's history is much more diverse. Yes – there are deserts and camels, but there is also a heritage of nearly 10,000 years of international trade. There is the earliest evidence of a pearling industry, mining and exporting of copper 5,000 years ago and sailing to China 2,000 years ago. That interaction with the outside world over generations lies at the heart of the UAE and of its culture of tolerance today.

Production Highlights

    Event, conference, 3 cameras, interviews
  • Location:
    Cambridge (UK)
  • Cameras:
    3 x Canon C200
  • Sound:
    SoundDevices MixPre 3 II, 1 x Sennheiser MKH-416 (XLR), 5 x Sennheiser AVX ME (XLR wireless lapel mics), 2 Zoom H4N
  • Monitor/Rec:
    Atomos Sumo 19''
  • Editing:
    Davinci Resolve, Premiere Pro, After Effects, Audition
  • Crew:
    Samuele Lilliu (Director), Oggi Tomic (General setup, Cam B), 2 freelancers.
The following article was edited from the transcript of Mejd Alsari's opening speech and Peter Hellyer's talk "Not Just Deserts but 9000 Years of Trade" for the inaugural event of the Cambridge University Emirati Society (28 November 2019, St. John's College, Cambridge University).

Dr Mejd Alsari's Inaugural Speech​

Welcome to the launch event of our newly-formed Cambridge University Emirati society. I would like to thank everyone for coming and joining us this evening to celebrate the formation of the society.

My name is Mejd Alsari, I am the founder and president of the Society and I am a postdoc at the Cavendish Laboratory, the department of physics at the University of Cambridge, and I work on materials for solar energy applications.

What we’re trying to do through the society is a number of things:

  1. To promote understanding of and interest in the Emirati and Gulf culture, heritage, and art amongst members of the University of Cambridge;
  2. To bring together members of the University of Cambridge and elsewhere who share an interest in learning about the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Gulf region, and encourage cross-cultural understanding and communication;
  3. To provide support for Emirati students studying in Cambridge;
  4. To connect with other UAE and Gulf societies in the UK and around the world.
  5. And most importantly, create a platform to discuss important topics to the UAE and the gulf region, specifically, a field that I am very passionate about (as well as the other committee members), scientific research, focusing on the issue of creating an accessible culture of research in the region.

With that we will be organising and hosting events including lectures, panel discussions, socials, workshops, and other activities that fall within the scope of the society’s objectives.

Let me tell you a bit about how did we come up with the idea of this launch event.

We thought what would be the best way to show people what the UAE is and I came across this new documentary series on the history of the Emirates going back 125,000 years and culminating in the country’s union in 1971. And so, we thought how nice would it be if we could show a preview of the documentary and have a panel discussion on the archaeological discoveries discussed in the movie. Long story short, we couldn’t get authorisation to screen the movie and so we decided to do talks instead.

Nonetheless, since we will be talking about history, I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge a man who believed in the importance of culture and heritage in the UAE’s development, the founding father of the UAE, the late Sheikh Zayed bin sultan Al Nahyan who used to say: “He who does not know his past cannot make the best of his present and future, for it is from the past that we learn.”

I would like to thank our sponsor, Al Anood Al Abdool from the Department of Foreign Assistance Affairs at the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and the UAE Embassy in London, for the generous financial support.

I also would like to thank members of the Trucial Oman Scouts Association for attending.

They played a key role in the history of the UAE by serving as a security force for the area that was later to become the UAE since 1951. They were kind enough to agree to display some books and pictures of their work during that period in the foyer area outside the auditorium.

Now, let me tell you a bit about the structure of this event. We will have three talks; after each talk we will have a Q&A, and then we’ll have a networking session in the foyer area.

Our first speaker, Peter Hellyer, born in the UK, he has been a resident of Abu Dhabi for over 40 years and was granted UAE citizenship in 2010 for his services to knowledge of the country’s archaeology and history. He is an Adviser at the UAE’s National Media Council, and he is author and editor or co-editor of nearly twenty books on the UAE’s archaeology, history and environment. Between 1992 and 2005, Peter founded and then managed the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey, ADIAS, which discovered some of the most significant historical sites in the region. These included the 1400 year old Christian monastery on the island of Sir Bani Yas and the 7,500 year old Neolithic village on the island of Marawah, where the oldest pearl yet found on an archaeological site has subsequently been discovered, which he will be telling us about in his talk titled “Not just deserts, but 9000 years of trade”.

"Not Just Deserts but 9000 Years of Trade", Peter Hellyer​

I chose the title Not Just Deserts but 9000 Years of Trade because there is something that has become apparent to me over the years and it will be apparent to Emiratis in the audience and to TOS (Trucial Omani Scouts) veterans in the audience and to other people who have lived in the UAE, that the idea that it’s desert, sands, and oil wells and not much else, is a tiny little part of the truth. There is much more to the UAE than that. I hope to skim over some of the aspects of UAE history that to my mind demonstrate that.

Mejd read extracts from Sheikh Zayed and I should acknowledge that his interest in the origins the history and the heritage of his country, as well as his other interests in developing the state that the UAE has become, was fundamental to the encouragement of the study of the history and archaeology and preservation of its culture over the last 45 years and remains a priority in terms of government. The phrase that Mejd just read out was something that he passionately felt. He had a genuinely deep interest in the origin of his country, his people, the history and heritage.

When looking at the history of the UAE, I could run over a long list of facts and bits of information that would take far too long. What I would like to do when I am talking about it, whether it’s natural history or the history and archaeology is to try to find bits of information that when you give it or when you show it, people would say: - Wow, really? I didn’t know they had that in the UAE? -. Things that would make you surprise and sit up.

Now I am going to deal a little bit with issues related to trade, innovation and ideas, which are three fundamental aspects of UAE history over the past 120,000 years.

The “Wow!” Factor​

First, in part because I love the illustrations that were done years ago by the artist from the Natural History Museum in London. I would like to say something about the palaeontology, which is before man. Figure 1 shows illustrations of late Miocene fauna, 5-6 million years ago when what is now the UAE was a bit like the savannahs of East Africa.[1,2] We had ancestors of horses, sabre-toothed cats, and hippopotamuses.

Figure 1 | Miocene fauna. Reconstruction painting of Late Miocene horses and sabre-toothed cat (a), hippos, turtles, crocodiles and antelopes (b) by one of the ancient rivers in Al Dhafra (UAE). Credit: Natural History Museum, London.

We had two kinds of elephants (Figure 2).[3] Elephants in Arabia? Yes, 6 million years ago we had two kinds of elephants one had the lower jaw with the tusk curved down, and the other kind had four tusks, two on the top and two on the bottom.

Figure 2 | Miocene fauna. Elephants. Credit: Natural History Museum, London.

They left footprints (Figure 3a). The fossilized trackway in Mleisa (Western Region, Abu Dhabi) is one of the longest and best preserved of ancient mammalian from the Miocene period anywhere in the world.[3]

You don’t think of the UAE as being a great place for fossils for palaeontology. Our geology is wrong for dinosaurs. But for the period from 8 to 5 million years ago, the best collections of terrestrial mammals, anywhere in the world, can be found in the UAE.

Figure 3b shows a 1.93m long elephant tusk found (near Ruwais in 2002 by the ADIAS team) that is soon to go on display I hope in the Zayed National Museum in Abu Dhabi.

Figure 3 | (a) Proboscidea late trackway site in Mleisa (Western Region, Abu Dhabi), ref. [3] (b) Elephant (Stegotetrabelodon syrticus) tusk, credit: Mark Beech.

Figure 3 | (a) Proboscidea late trackway site in Mleisa (Western Region, Abu Dhabi), ref. 3 (b) Elephant (Stegotetrabelodon syrticus) tusk, credit: Mark Beech.


The process of the UAE acting as a pathway, as a passage point between Africa and Asia, did not just take place 5-6 million years ago. It happened up to 120 thousand years ago. Figure 4 shows a Palaeolithic scraper from a site called Barakah in the West of Abu Dhabi Emirate.[4,5] We have other sites in Sharjah Emirate, where there is evidence of people 120 thousands years ago who had probably come out of Africa across the southern end of the Red Sea (because sea levels where lower) and stopped in the Emirates. There were several phases of occupation. We know there are phases because we can do dating on the sand grains. Then these anatomically modern humans (Homo Sapiens) moved from the UAE into the Asian continent, and eventually all the way to Australia.

Figure 4 | Middle Paleolithic artefact discovered in Barakah. Ref. [5]

So we, the UAE, have been a pathway for the spreading from Africa into Asia of mammalian fauna and of homo sapiens. We have played a role there we hadn’t even thought about 20-25 years ago. As a result of the research undertaken over the past couple of decades, this kind of information is now coming into light. This is crucial in terms of the way the UAE now understands itself. That it wasn’t just a bit of isolated desert on the fringe of the nowhere, that it had a role to play and that still has a role to play.


Figure 5 shows a house on the Island of Marawah, west of Abu Dhabi.[6] It was built 7500 years ago. That is what it looks like today after excavation. There were houses that were less sophisticated than that being built in the UAE as recently as a 100-150 years ago. There were sophisticated architectural methods being used in a way that is not found anywhere else in the Arabian Gulf at that period.

Figure 5 | Neolithic settlement in Marawah Island. Ref. [6]

But the people who built this they weren’t just fisherman or people hunting the old animals, they were engaged in international trade. A pot from Ubaid period (Mesopotamia, 7500 years ago) was found in the same building (Figure 6).[6] Marawah at the time, as it is now, was an island and therefore its inhabitants must have been able to engage in shipping up and down the Gulf. They certainly also knew how to exploit the marine resources around them. You can tell that from analysing the fish bones. They were harvesting fish that can be found inshore, but also bigger fish like tuna that can be only found in the deep waters offshore. This gives an idea that they had the capacity to manufacture boats and to sail up and down the Gulf.

Figure 6 | 7000 year old pottery vessel discovered at Marawah Island. Ref.[6]

They also had interest in other aspects of life including adornment. Now it doesn’t happen these days, but people used to be buried with jewellery around their necks. In Marawah they didn’t have metal but what they did have in the waters around were oysters. Figure 7a shows beads made from the shells of pearl oysters.[6] Figure 7b shows the oldest known pearl to have been used and collected by man. It dates to about 5800 B.C. again from the Island of Marawah and from a house adjacent to the one shown in Figure 6.[7] The pearling industry in the UAE began 7500 years ago and ended just after the Second World War. Over that lengthy period the Romans talked about the pearls from the Gulf.[8] You can see Renaissance paintings of (members of the House of) Medici and others with jewellery that includes pearls from the Gulf. They were a luxury item harvested by the people of the Gulf and exported to Europe from the Roman time certainly onwards to the great empires of Mesopotamia in the second and third millennium B.C.[9]

Therefore this little area of desert with a few scattered islands was producing over seven thousand years ago fine items like that pearl that would be in demand for over seven thousand years. I think that is an indication that the UAE had a contribution to make to world history.

Figure 7 | Oyster shell buttons (a), Ref. 6.  and (b) world’s oldest pearl unearthed on Marawah Island in 2019. Ref. [7]

If you find strings of Gulf pearls today they are worth a lot of money. But it wasn’t just things like pearls. There was innovation. This is another ‘first’ from the Emirates. Figure 9 shows a date stone from the Neolithic period, 7500 years ago, discovered in Dalma Island.[10] Carbon dating has shown that is the oldest known evidence of men consuming dates anywhere in the world. Of course man was consuming dates before, and no doubt it would continue for another 6 or 7 thousand years, but it is the oldest known evidence.

Figure 8 | Archaeobotanical evidence for early date consumption on Dalma Island, Ref. 10.

When I talk about special things about the UAE it is not that it did not happen anywhere else in the world in some cases. Thanks to extensive research and encouragement to research in archaeology, little bits of information pop up. That’s why an encouragement of research is so important.

Figure 9a depicts part of a large communal burial area 200-300 skeletons from about 4500-4000 B.C., excavated by a German team in the Emirate of Sharjah.[11] Figure 9b shows jewellery in the skull. At the bottom centre there are remains of a necklace, smaller beads near the teeth, and the red arrow points to a pearl that was placed upon the nose of the deceased. It’s 1500 years later than the oldest known pearl I have shown before, but it shows that people were valuing these items as being an important part of adornment of jewellery and this site is actually about 100 km inland. What was found offshore would be traded to people inland, what was found inland would be traded to people on the coast and beyond.

Figure 9 | Communal burial site (a) and pearl deposited on the upper lip of an individual (b) in the cemetery at Jebel Buhais, Emirate of Sharjah (UAE), credit: Dr Adelina Kutterer, al-Buhais Project. Ref.[11]


When we first begin to see evidence of major scale of international trade is at the time the tombs in Figure 10 were built. These are restored versions but they are from about 3000-3200 B.C. on a mountain called Jebel Hafeet, which is near the city of Al Ain.[12,13]

This was the beginning of the UAE Bronze Age when a second industry exploiting the UAE’s natural resources got under way, which was that of mining copper.14 We exported copper to the Gulf and all the way to the Hindus Valley.

Figure 10 | Bronze Age Necropolis at Jebel Hafeet (Al Ain). Ref. [12,13]

The pot in Figure 11a was imported from the Hindus Valley. The adornment in Figure 11b probably came from Iran or was copied from the same kind of adornment you would find in Iran.

Figure 11 | Pot from the Hindus Valley (a), adornments probably from Iran (b).


3000 years ago, the invention of the Falaj system allowed you at the time of declining rain fall to tap into underground water.[15] These are 3000 years old water channels that are still in use today (Figure 12).

Figure 12 | Falaj system.

Figure 13 shows camel skeletons found in the desert, which are dated to the Neolithic period. But about 3000 years ago it appears that camels were first domesticated in the UAE and surrounding areas.[16] Again another major innovation that allowed for major change.

Figure 13 | 3000 years old camel skeletons. Ref. [16]

A seal depicting a lateen sail (Figure 14) was found in the Bronze and Iron Age site of Tell Abraq. The invention of the lateen sail allowed people to tack against the wind and cross the Indian Ocean. First shown in the UAE in the Iron Age, late Iron Age (700-800 B.C.); again an innovation that revolutionized people’s ability to travel in the Indian Ocean.

Figure 14 | Illustration of lateen seal. Ref. [16]


This is the Church from Sir Bani Yas Island, when we had an active Christian community in the UAE, before the beginning of Islam probably around 600 A.D. until about 750 A.D. but dates are not precise.[17] We knew it was a church when we found this.[18]

Figure 15 | Sir Bani Yas Nestorian monastery. Ref.  [17,18]

The President (Sheik Zayed) was delighted when we told him. UAE talks today of being a country of tolerance and actually, in religious terms, it is tolerant. When we first found this item on the left, this stunning piece of plasterwork, beautiful plaster cross, some of my colleagues thought “how do we tell the devoutly Muslim President of a devoutly Muslim Country that we just found a church on his private island?”. I said: “I think he’s going to love it”. He loved it so much that we received funding for the next year excavation and we excavated for years and years onwards. He saw it as a part of the UAE’s history, this tolerance of ideas.

Figure 16 | Cross plaster found in the Sir Bani Yas Nestorian church.

Then we spread our wings. Two thousand years ago, sailors from the UAE were reaching China and it’s there in the Chinese records.[19]

When the Portuguese raided the UAE at the beginning of the XVI century cutting the noses of people and built fortresses in Khor Fakkan. From Khor Fakkan the UAE was exporting horses to India.[20] Some of you has seen some of the great Arabian horses. 500 years ago we were exporting horses to India, the ancestors of today’s Arabians.


Besides the innovations, trade, and ideas we had another impact within the region and that was the powers within the UAE they had the ability to influence surrounding areas. Figure 17 shows a painting of the British shelling of Ras Al Khaimah in 1819, when the UAE first came within the political orbit of Britain in India. And why did they bother? Why did they fell impelled to do so? Because the Al-Qasimi of Ras Al-Khaimah and Sharjah, which are two of the Emirates that make up the UAE, could put over 60 big ships to sea. It is estimated that they had as many as 18,000 sailors and they could raid or engage in conflicts as far as India and East Africa.[21]

Figure 17 | Depiction of the British Empire campaign against the Al Qasimi military forces in 1819.

So there is a bit more to the UAE than desert, camels and sand and I hope, in spite of my limited time, I have given you something to think about and hope there is a bit of ‘wow factor’ in there for you.

Peter Hellyer's Remarks on the Event​

I’ve really enjoyed coming here this evening to talk to the inaugural meeting of the Cambridge University Emirati Society and I think it is a very important initiative because within a major international academic institution like Cambridge University it is important that there is more knowledge about the UAE and what the UAE has to offer in terms of its research, environment, history, heritage, development, all the interesting things that have been taking place in the Emirates that aren’t really known about outside the UAE. I think that organisations like the Cambridge University Emirati Society can help to break down that barrier of ignorance and to strip away the curtain of ignorance that hides what the UAE is doing from the rest of the world. I hope this is an initiative that we can see doing very well in Cambridge during the years to come but also to spread around other universities inside the UK and elsewhere. Because the UAE does have a good story. It’s a work in progress, the country is not perfect, it is continuing to move forward, and the government is well aware that there are things that need to be changed, things we need to do better, new things we have to start doing like the aspiration to get to Mars in the course of the next century.

What I have been talking about the last few years and I have repeated a bit of that this evening, is to try to talk about why the UAE is interesting in terms of its past. It has trading relationships with the rest of the world that goes back to 9000 old years. There have been great ideas and innovations in the UAE’s history for thousands of years. There are things that have been invented in the UAE. Things that have been practised in the UAE. The international trade relationships in the UAE that has seen people trading between the UAE and China 2000 years ago. The togas of the emperors of Rome were dyed in the purple colour that came from sea shells that were harvested in the Emirates and elsewhere in the Arabian Gulf. So there is aspects about Emirati history that I feel are interesting and challenging to present. It’s often the case the people would look at the Emirates from outside and they would think “Oh it’s desert, sand, and camels, and oil… there was nothing before the oil, and when the oil runs out there will be nothing left after the oil”. When I talk to Emirati students in particular back in the UAE I tell them “This is not the case”. In the Emirates we do have a history that is fascinating and it goes back a long way, we have massive stone structures that are older than the pyramids, we invented the lateen sail, that revolutionized the ability of people to sail across the oceans of the world and it was in use in the Gulf it seems on the basis of archaeological studies, we were using it 1500 years before the Portuguese adopted that and made their way around the Cape of Good Hope to get to the Far East. So we have done a lot in terms of discovery over the process of interchange with other countries over thousands of years developed a culture of tolerance and exchange with others that makes up the society that we have today, which is a tolerant society and one that people from over 200 countries around the world come and live and work in the UAE. And it is quite rare in the world and especially rare in the Middle East and in the Arab world to have that kind of tolerant, forward looking, progressive society.

I have an enthusiasm for the UAE. I have been honoured. I and my family have been given citizenship of the UAE. It’s a country to which I have devoted over 40 years of my life and I don’t regret a minute of it. I have enjoyed the ability to contribute to the discovery of what the UAE is as a country and I welcome the ability to come and talk about the UAE and to share my enthusiasm with audiences in Britain and elsewhere. The Cambridge University Emirati Society is a great place for me to try to share this enthusiasm and I wish the society well, I believe it has a great future, I believe it has a significant role to play, and I feel honoured that I have been invited to take part in its launch operation.


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